State's $140,000 funds program where business students offer help
By Wendi L. Baker / Special to The Detroit News
VESTABURG -- Despite being wheelchair-bound and semi-quadriplegic, Bob Welch is a successful inventor establishing his own business.
The Vestaburg native was a professional drywaller and painter until 1995 when a virus attacked his immune system. He is now partially paralyzed.
"I've invented stuff my whole life," Welch said. "I just never patented anything until recently."
It is thanks to a Michigan Rehabilitative Services grant through Central Michigan University that Welch is not only patenting his inventions, but also opening his own business -- Welch Innovations Inc.
"Students at the university are helping me with a business plan," Welch said. "They get information and put the plan together."
One of Welch's two patents is a bedside chair and body wash for bedridden and wheelchair-bound people.
He has also invented a device to help quadriplegics still be able to hunt, he said.
He has more than 30 inventions under his belt, and is working to patent and produce even more.
Michael Vuillemot, associate director of the LaBelle Entrepreneurial Center at Central Michigan, said the $140,000 three-year grant is being distributed by MRS through the Michigan Department of Career Development.
"The purpose of the grant is to create a permanent student consulting agency to serve persons with disabilities who are hoping to start their own businesses," Vuillemot said.
"We're trying to create a model of cooperation between state agencies like MRS and institutions of higher education that can be replicated state and nationwide."
Vuillemot recruits business students and student organizations in order to create business plans and provide other supports for disabled entrepreneurs.
Both undergraduate and graduate students in marketing, business and accounting help in the program -- some to complete practicum and consulting projects.
"Phi Chi Theta, a professional business fraternity, has also volunteered to be our permanent students consulting resource," Vuillemot said.
In addition to student services, disabled entrepreneurs also receive basic accounting and legal services through Central Michigan.
Recipients like Welch are referred to Vuillemot by the MDCD mid-Michigan offices.
District Manager Joe Swanson said he and his staff work with disabled people from Isabella, Gratiot, Clare, Midland, Gladwin, Arenac, Bay and Saginaw counties.
"We can technically work with anyone who has a disability that substantially impedes employment," Swanson said. "However, our focus in on the severely disabled."
At least a dozen people have benefited from Central Michigan's program in the past year, Swanson said, including one person who opened a Subway franchise in Lake City.
"Their disabilities range from central nervous system and heart problems to Multiple Sclerosis to quadriplegic, paraplegics and amputees to the learning disabled," Swanson said. "These people are moving toward self-sufficiency and self-employment and it's really exciting."
Entrepreneurship major Brad Sczcotka is the president of Students in Free Enterprise at Central Michigan. The group is working in conjunction with the Michigan Rehabilitative Services grant to create an Entrepreneur Opportunity Day on March 3, 2001, Sczcotka said.
Targeted to the general public, the event will also be designed with the needs of people with disabilities in mind.
"There are a lot of people out there who want to start businesses, but have no idea where to start," Sczcotka said. "We'll have lawyers, CPAs, bankers and business owners there offering advice and pitching ideas."
Though Welch is grateful for all the help he's had from Central Michigan, he sometimes wonders why he decided to start his own business.
"It has not been easy," Welch said. "It's probably five times harder since I'm paralyzed as opposed to being normal."
He requires help at every turn from his sons and his parents and he struggles daily to stay on top of his business plan.
At the end of the day, though, Welch is proud of his accomplishments and his ability to remain independent without state aid.
"It's a real uphill struggle," Welch said, "but in the end, it is all worth it."
Wendi L. Baker writes
for the Morning Sun in Mt. Pleasant. This report was distributed by The